Isabel Antilopini looked in the mirror and forced herself to smile. To the gazelle, it looked more like a grimace, and she tried again with no greater luck. Today had been the fifth rejection, but what had made it all the worse was that it hadn't been an outright rejection. The agent, an oily-looking ibex, had sat with about no sign of interest as her trio worked its way through their own material. Once they moved into a cover of "Someone to Watch Over Me" he had perked up noticeably, and they had thrown their all into it.
She thought it was the best performance that they had ever given of the song, the playful way that her piano danced a counterpoint to the improvisations to the theme that Frank worked on his bass and the way that Bill kept the time on the drums without making it rigid. Her voice had soared, filling the unglamorous performance stage, with its cigarette smoke stained walls and heaps of instruments piled carelessly in the corners, as though it had been the grandest theater in all of Zootopia. When the last note had faded, all three of them had looked to the agent expectantly.
He had made them wait, scribbling something on a pad of paper, before the ibex had beckoned her forward; Bill and Frank stayed at their instruments. It was an unspoken agreement of the members of Gazelle and the Tigers that she was the face of the group, an arrangement that they all knew the reason for but never discussed. Once she had approached the agent, he had stood up and walked with her to the far side of the room, as far away from the little stage as it was possible to get.
"Listen," he had said, throwing an overly familiar arm over her shoulder, "You've got a great voice and you can tickle those keys like no one's business. Why are you wasting your time with this..."
As the agent trailed off, he had glanced over Isabel's shoulder to make sure that the other members of her trio were out of earshot, and dropped his voice. "This pred music. You could be a star in New Yak, you know, doing musicals."
"Nuts to that," she had said, shaking the ibex's arm off her shoulder.
"We," she had said, emphasizing the word as firmly as she could, "Play jazz."
He had merely shrugged and pointed to the exit that they were standing next to. "Say hello to the revenuers, then. The door's that way."
That had been only a few hours ago, and as she touched up her lipstick she wondered if it had been the right choice. Principles were wonderful in theory, but they didn't pay the bills. Then again, neither did jazz. Her day job in the steno pool did that, and that barely kept the lights on. The dress she was wearing, with its countless silver sequins, had cost almost a month's wages, but performers at the Tundra Lanes bowling alley had to look the part. Or rather, performers at the speakeasy under Tundra Lanes had to look the part. She had to be Gazelle, the jazz pianist and singer who could capture an entire room with her song, not Isabel, the plain and unremarkable gazelle (with a very distinct lower case G) who neither stood above or below her fellow secretaries. A significant part of it was the clothes; Gazelle's dress was heavy and uncomfortable, but the way the sequins caught the light and emphasized the curves that they did as little as possible to cover would have turned any male's head, prey or predator. Most of it, though, the part that really made a difference, was the attitude. Gazelle was bold, a force of nature that didn't back down any more than the sun could be asked not to shine, and she reached down deep to find that high wattage energy. "Come on, fellas," she said, trying to make her voice bright, and her smile in the mirror looked almost real, "Let's give them a show they won't forget."
Frank looked up from his bass; his crummy little apartment was in the Rain Forest District and the trip into Tundra Town always put the instrument out of tune. He gave her a wry grin. "How many this time? Five?"
Isabel was nobody's fool. Everyone, even the police, knew what it meant when the little sign that said "Closed for Private Engagement" appeared on the door of Tundra Lanes. No one, not even the most foolish drunk, would try to gatecrash mafia business. The fancy cars parked out back despite the bowling alley having closed hours ago would be ignored. The various mammals, all dressed in their best, would be likewise ignored by any passing police officer as they made their way to the back entrance of the bowling alley and disappeared down a set of stairs hidden in what looked like a janitor's closet. It wasn't the first time that her trio had been scheduled to play for one of those little meetings; usually it would be four or five mammals, sitting at the table furthest from the stage as they drank and smoked and discussed whatever it was that they were up to. It was a far cry from how the speakeasy normally ran, when dozens of mammals would fill the basement with their energy as they drank and laughed and danced the night away. Still, the polar bear who owned the place, Mr. Koslov, always paid better on the nights he conducted his meetings, and the subtext to those transactions was that they were being paid for their discretion as much as they were for their performance. Isabel, Bill, and Frank consciously made sure that they stayed as far away as possible, and Koslov would slip an extra five into the envelope he paid them with at the end of the night.
"Probably," she agreed.
Bill sighed from where he stood in front of the other mirror in what could only charitably be called the green room; it was little bigger than a closet and smelled strongly of potatoes. The tiger was fussing with his tie; unlike Frank, who refused to play any instrument other than his own, Bill was quite happy to use the drum set that the speakeasy kept onstage rather than lugging his own around town. It left him plenty of time to fuss over his appearance, and if there were a vainer tiger in all the city Isabel had yet to meet him. "Maybe we should have taken the gig at the Blind Tiger tonight," he said.
"You only like playing there 'cause Ethel gives you free shots of that swill you like," Frank shot back, not looking up from his bass.
"At least we'd have an audience besides tables and chairs," Bill said.
"Uh huh," Frank replied, sounding as skeptical as he possibly could, "You know she only likes you 'cause she can't see that ugly mug of yours."
Isabel shook her head. "Come on, fellas," she said, interrupting the tigers before Bill could respond.
They could, and sometimes would, spend hours bickering; they never meant anything by it, but even if it was for an audience that could be counted on one hoof, a gig was a gig. "I'll check if they're ready for us."
She left the little green room, squeezing past Frank and his bass, but she was interrupted on her way to the stage by Mr. Koslov. As was typical for the polar bear, he was dressed in a somber suit all of black over a white dress shirt. The overall effect between the suit and his natural coloration was to make him appear entirely monochromatic, like a photograph come to life. She gave him a respectful little nod, but he surprised her by speaking. "Is hot, no?" Koslov asked.
She thought a moment before responding. It was not in Koslov's nature to make small talk and even though it was anything but warm in the speakeasy, she knew the massive polar bear wouldn't say it for no reason. "A little," she allowed cautiously.
"You and your tigers get some air. Cigarette break, maybe. Ten, fifteen minutes," the polar bear replied.
She could smell the sharp tang of alcohol on his breath, which was again unusual. Isabel didn't think she could remember ever having encountered any evidence that the bear drank, but the smell of whisky, the real stuff that came across the border, was unmistakable, and that made the decision for her.
"Sure, Mr. Koslov," she said.
He gave her a smile that struck her as somehow being sad. "I enjoy your singing, very much. I want you should know this," he said.
Isabel's heart had begun to pound in her chest, and she gave him a nod. "It's been a pleasure, Mr. Koslov," she said as calmly as she could manage, and it struck her that one way or another she would almost certainly never speak to him again.
She power walked back to the green room, kicking off her heels as she did so; she had never cared for them very much and it seemed as though she might have to run. "Frank. Bill. We're leaving. Now." she said, and to her great relief the two tigers understood the urgency in her voice and didn't give any kind of protest. With none of the usual care that Frank gave his precious bass he tossed it into its case and slammed the lid shut, and they made their way out of the green room, up the stairs, and outside the bowling alley.
The streets of Tundra Town were cold, as they always were no matter the time of year; the massive climate wall was easily visible from the bowling alley. It was one of the buildings relatively close to the wall and it was easily in the best shape out of any of its neighbors. Most of the buildings nearest the wall were shabby and decrepit, as anyone who had money and any sense stayed as far away from the wall as possible; only last year one of the tanks of refrigerant had sprung a leak and killed a dozen mammals in an apartment building built so close to the wall that they hadn't even bothered to put windows on the side of the building facing it. There were rumors, though, that the mafia either completely controlled or at least had access to the maintenance tunnels that ran under the wall, which made Isabel suspect that Mr. Koslov had bought the bowling alley because of where it was positioned relative the wall, not despite it.
Isabel repressed a shiver as she led Frank and Bill away from the bowling alley; she was neither made nor dressed for such cold weather, but she thought it wise to be as far away as possible. When she spared a glance back towards the building, she could see, by the dim light of the few flickering streetlights that worked in this part of town, a car pull up to the main entrance. It was difficult to see, as its headlights weren't on, but she thought it was a Camellac from how long it was and the rumble of the engine, which was nothing like the pathetic little flivver that Frank drove when he could keep it running. The car dipped as the doors along the side facing the bowling alley opened and mammals stepped out, but it was too dark and too far away for Isabel to so much as identify their species. "Is there a call box around here?" she asked, and it was only after she spoke that she realized she had been whispering, despite being at least half a block from the bowling alley.
Bill pointed up ahead. "Around the corner," he said, just as quietly, and Isabel ran for it, Bill and Frank following suit.
Isabel had unlatched the little box on its post and had pulled the phone out when she heard the sound that she knew she would never forget, no matter how long she lived. The speakeasy under Tundra Lanes had been built well, with thick concrete walls and layers of insulation that kept the sound of music and patrons alike from being too audible at the street level. Despite that, despite being hundreds of feet away from the building, the sharp crack of gunfire and the screams of mammals were audible enough, and Isabel turned to face the tigers wide eyed. A bored sounding voice came faint and tinny from the receiver, barely audible over the electric hum of the line. "Zootopia Police. What's your emergency?"
Isabel licked her lips, which suddenly seemed incredibly dry. "Zootopia Police. What's your emergency?" the voice repeated, and she thought she heard a note of irritation in the voice.
"There's been a shooting," she managed at last, and her voice did not sound like her own to her ears; it was weak and trembling.
She took a breath and pulled her Gazelle voice from somewhere in her chest. "There's been a shooting," she repeated, her voice strong and firm, "Tundra Town Lanes, on Ivvavik Street."
Author's Notes: This story draws pretty heavily from what I consider to be one of the most interesting times in the history of the US: the era of Prohibition. In my last story, the version of Zootopia presented was very heavily based on London of the 19th century, while in this one it's based off of 1920s Chicago. As in my last story, I'll use these author's notes to provide some additional flavor and explanation to things that highlight the difference between the modern era and the past, particularly in regards to technology, social customs, and slang. These notes will never be necessary to understand the story, however, so feel free to skip them.
The 1920s were a time of incredible technological development, economic prosperity in the cities (until the stock market crash of 1929, at least), and social changes within the US. I'm trying to do my best to capture the spirit of the time. This story is set in 1927, which was firmly within the period of Prohibition, when the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution made the production, transport, and sale of alcohol illegal. The Volstead Act, which went into effect on January 20, 1920, served as the means of putting this into law and remained in effect until the adoption of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. By most measures, Prohibition was a disaster; organized crime flourished, particularly within cities like Chicago, and enforcement of the ban on alcohol was ineffectual at best. Speakeasies, illegal drinking establishments, were quite common particularly within large cities.
Isabel Antilopini is my interpretation of Gazelle as a jazz musician at the head of a trio with two tigers on the other instruments. Frank is named in reference to Frank R. Stockton, author of "The Lady or the Tiger?" and Bill is named in reference to William Blake, author of "The Tyger." Isabel is one of Shakira's middle names and Antilopini is the taxonomical tribe of gazelles. Steno pools don't really exist anymore, but in the time before word processors and desktop printing, most companies who processed a lot of correspondences employed large numbers of secretaries to take dictation and type up memos, letters, and proposals. It's not a job that paid particularly well, but it is the sort of job that a musician burning the candle at both ends could hold down during the day while practicing and performing at night.
Sequins were a popular decoration for dresses in the 1920s, but they weren't made out of plastic at that time. Instead, they were tiny metal discs, which made them expensive and heavy. In the 1930s, sequins made out of gelatin were invented, which were significantly lighter and cheaper, but they had a tendency to dissolve if they got too wet or too warm. A dance partner could therefore ruin a dress if he kept his hand in one place too long, which would also reveal how fresh he got. It wasn't until the 1950s that sequins would take their more or less modern form as being durable, light, and cheap.
Revenuers were what the government agents charged with enforcing the ban on alcohol were commonly called, so the agent is not so subtly telling Gazelle that he knows that her jazz group plays in the sort of establishments that could be raided.
Jazz music was to the 1920s much as rock and roll was to the 1950s. Particularly among older people, it was seen as immoral and not being "real" music. Jazz was frequently associated with speakeasies, giving it an extra edge of excitement. Gazelle's jazz trio is a classic jazz ensemble, as the combination of piano, bass (meaning a double bass, not a bass guitar), and drums was pretty typical. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is a real song, written in 1926 as part of a musical. It was originally written as a jazz number, but first performed as a ballad. It quickly became a jazz standard, and has been covered countless times since. It's a beautiful song, and I recommend that you give it a listen if you've never heard it before.
One of the things that I think Zootopia did well is that the relationship between predator and prey is not a one to one reflection of our world in terms of relations between a majority and a minority group. It's more nuanced, and while some people have claimed that this makes the movie racist or muddles its message, I would say that it provides a more thoughtful look at the divisions between different groups of people across many lines. That being said, one of the aspects of jazz that contributed to the moral panic around it was that it was historically black music. There were a number of white jazz musicians in the US, and some groups with black and white members, but that really only became common in the 1930s.
Bowling saw a surge of popularity in the 1920s; bowling alleys had frequently been part of saloons before Prohibition and when alcohol became illegal they started aggressively promoting themselves as wholesome, family-friendly entertainment to stay in business. In the US, at least, it's common now for bowling alleys to have bars, which means that they've more or less come full circle.
Referring to another speakeasy called the Blind Tiger is a bit of a joke, since a blind tiger was another slang term for a speakeasy. In this case, it's apparently run by an actual blind tiger.
Air conditioning and refrigeration started becoming more widely available in the 1920s, but the refrigerants used were typically toxic, flammable, or both. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are relatively nontoxic and nonflammable, started being used after Thomas Midgley Jr. and his research team figured out how to make them in the necessary quantities in 1928. Unfortunately, CFCs massively contributed to the formation of the hole in the ozone layer, which is why they have been phased out. Interestingly enough, Thomas Midgley Jr. was also responsible for inventing leaded gasoline as a means to allow higher engine compression ratios without knocking, which drastically improved the performance of cars. Unfortunately, the lead in the gas was released along with the car's exhaust, where the lead could be absorbed by people and animals and cause neurological damage. The poor guy didn't set out to be an ecological menace, but his two biggest successes did not help. Back to the original point, in 1927 the Zootopia climate wall would be possible, but would require a massive amount of power and would use large quantities of something dangerous like ammonia or propane as the refrigerant. Therefore, in this story I think it's understandable why no one really wants to have a business or home next to the wall unless they have an ulterior motive.
Camellac is an awful pun on Cadillac, an American luxury car brand that has been operating since 1902. The car described is based on a 1927 Cadillac Series 314 Imperial Sedan, which had seating for 7. Its name came from its 314 cubic inch (5.15 liter) V8 engine delivering an amazing (for the time) 70 horsepower. That's kind of underwhelming now, but keep in mind that the Ford Model T, the car that most people would have been able to afford, only made 20 horsepower out of a 177 cubic inch (2.9 liter) 4 cylinder engine. Speaking of the Model T Ford, "flivver" was a slang term for them at the time, along with "Tin Lizzy."
While police call boxes are now commonly associated with the TARDIS from Doctor Who, they were quite real, particularly in the time before telephones were common in households and businesses. Chicago had police call boxes from about 1880, and in the 1920s they'd be more or less just a small box on a post, not something the size of a small shed like the British style police boxes.
Ivvavik Street is named in reference to a Canadian national park that is in fact part of the tundra.
Well, these notes ended up being rather lengthy. If you're still reading at this point, I'd appreciate any feedback that you have, positive or negative. This chapter was more or less the prologue; next week I'll be back with one from the perspective of one of the main characters. Until then, thanks for reading!